By Miki Saito
When looking after a blind dog, it is vital to know his abilities as well as his challenges so we do not limit his world any more than necessary.
Blind dogs still need to explore and achieve things on their own. All we have to do is set up their environment differently and approach training in a new way to ensure their safety. We need to consider the potential frustration, confusion and fear caused by the loss of vision.
With this in mind we need to help these dogs use their sense of smell, hearing and touch to shape new ways of achieving goals and interacting with the world. We can increase what a blind dog can comfortably do by creating a good environment for the dog, one that enables him to safely use his other senses and abilities to get desired outcomes without fear or pressure.
A Safe Environment
If a dog is in the process of going blind or has just lost his eyesight, first and foremost give him sufficient time to adapt to his new condition. Likewise, if he was recently adopted, moved to a new place, or put in an unfamiliar situation, give him time to study that situation. Do not rush him. Focus instead on ensuring his safety and helping him to feel safe. Let him decide when he is ready to learn new things.
Creating an aid station will help the blind dog adapt to his loss of sight. This is an area which has all of the dog’s essentials: a water bowl, a crate and an absorbent pad. These items must always be arranged in exactly the same way. For more details on how to implement the aid station strategy, see Blind Dog Training.
Other basic safety strategies include installing baby gates at the top and bottom of each stairway and covering the corners and legs of furniture with cushioning material such as a yoga mat. This helps the dog move around the house safely. Once he learns where everything is, a blind dog will retain that information and create a map in his head of the house layout and the location of furniture.
The ability to see provides us with an immediate understanding of the safety of various situations and helps us to avoid and escape danger. Loss of vision can make a dog anxious and put her on maximum alert and may make her extra sensitive to sounds and touch.
We can teach a blind dog not to fear sound or being touched by having those stimuli predict good events. The emotion a stimulus elicits is known as a conditioned emotional response (CER).
If a dog is experiencing a negative emotional response to a stimulus, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are commonly used to change it to a positive emotional response. Counterconditioning is only effective if the dog feels safe while still detecting the stimulus.
In The Many Faces of Behavior Myopia: Recognizing the Subtle Signs (BARKS from the Guild, October 2014, pp. 14-19), Anderson and Steinker refer to this emotional state as the zone of safety/joy.
Keeping a blind dog in this zone is challenging because she detects the stimulus and situation differently than dogs with normal vision. This makes it difficult to adjust the level of stimulus appropriately. I find that teaching a trick using shaping keeps the dog in the safe zone as she learns to associate sound and touch with positive outcomes.
I teach two major categories of tricks. The first category simply reinforces the dog for voluntarily making a sound or touching something. The second category of tricks uses a sound or touch as a prompt or cue. If a blind dog has already overreacted to the stimulus or is very fearful before starting training, I start by teaching a trick in the first category. If she is not afraid, I can use a trick from the second category. Typically this will be teaching hand targeting, snapping the fingers as a cue. If you are interested in these tricks and the way to teach them, visit my YouTube channel.
The purpose of teaching tricks is not only to change the CER of the stimulus. Through these training sessions and nose games, a blind dog will also realize that her other senses enable her to achieve a desired outcome. These tricks will enable her to develop her abilities, and (re)build self-confidence.
Tactile cues will enable us to communicate with her even if she loses her sense of hearing later on. Keep in mind that the purpose of training a blind dog is to enrich her life, not to make her behave the same way a sighted dog would.
Use Sound Guidance
I use some sounds and words as guidance for my blind dog in order to let her know where she should go or what is going to happen to her, and help her move or do things with ease. For details about how to teach and use sound guidance, see the video Sound Signals for Helping Blind Dog and Blind Dog Training handouts.
Also, consider the risk of any new tool and consider whether it is necessary. Many people think that using scents, a pet fountain, a special harness/vest and headgear are helpful to blind dogs.
It is commonly recommended that their owners put some scent, like vanilla flavoring or aroma oils, on furniture or other important places in the house but this often just makes things more challenging. Smells can become attached to our fingers, hands, clothes and the dog’s body.
They can also diffuse and pool in corners of the room. Since we cannot accurately keep the smell only where we want it, this strategy can confuse the dog. People assume that dogs use their sense of smell first if they lose their eyesight but in my experience they first rely on their memory. When a blind dog navigates his house, he uses a map in his head.
Pet fountains are often perceived as a way for a blind dog to find his water bowl. They are not necessary. A blind dog can find his water bowl without using his sense of hearing.
Blind dogs develop a very accurate memory after losing their eyesight. They can memorize house layouts and the location of furniture and places that are important to them. They can find their water bowl if we just put it in the same place every time and make sure it is easily and safely accessible.
As mentioned above, special harnesses, vests and headgear are available for blind dogs. Although there can be some advantages, such as the headgear cushioning them if they bump into something, there are also disadvantages.
A blind dog uses his muzzle and face to feel his way around. He uses his muzzle or face to measure the height difference between the floor and the steps, as well as to determine the shape of objects. My blind dog Nono finds the entrance of her crate by using her muzzle. You can see how she does this in this video.
Harnesses can cause problems for the blind dog as well. If a blind dog becomes dependent on the harness, he may become confused when not wearing it. Another issue is the hoop at the top of these harnesses, which might get caught on something, such as a tree branch or a piece of furniture. The harness itself could be grabbed by another dog or broken.
Harnesses are not the same as a cane for blind people. Blind people can choose whether or not to use a cane. They can let go of it anytime. Blind dogs obviously cannot remove the harness. Although such gear might be helpful for some dogs in certain situations, the disadvantages must be considered and the equipment must be used carefully.
Observe ABCs of a Problem Behavior
When assessing behavior problems in blind dogs, do not assume that the problem is due to blindness. The first two steps in resolving the issue will be the same as for any dog with a problem behavior. That is, have a veterinarian examine the dog to determine if there are clinical or nutritional reasons for the behavior.
If there are not, then a functional assessment needs to be done, part of which includes defining the problem behavior, determining the stimulus cueing it and the consequences maintaining it.
This is often referred to as ABC, for antecedent, behavior and consequence. If the behavior happens repeatedly, it is because the animal gets some desired outcome. He may derive pleasure or comfort from the behavior or he might avoid or escape a stimulus he finds aversive, such as a situation or event that makes him uncomfortable.
Determining the antecedent stimulus of a problem behavior and the consequences maintaining it enable us to design a behavior modification program. This program may involve training the dog to do an alternative behavior. It may also involve changing the environment to either prevent the undesirable behavior or to make it easier to perform the alternative (acceptable) behavior.
Blind dogs have great abilities and are perfectly able to thrive. They are quite capable of many things and enjoy training and living their lives fully. We can help them by skillfully applying the knowledge of behavior science and positive reinforcement. As Dr. Susan Friedman says in Parrot Hero (PsittaScene, February 2013, 25, pp. 12-15), “An empowered animal, with a lifestyle of positive experiences, has a better quality of life.”
Anderson, E. & Steinker, A. (2014, October). The Many Faces of Behavior Myopia: Recognizing the Subtle Signs. BARKS from the Guild, pp. 14-19
Friedman, S. (2013, February). Parrot Hero. PsittaScene, pp. 12-15
Saito, M. (2012, September). Implementing an Aid Station for a Blind Dog
Resources for Blind Dog Training (handouts)
Video Sound Signals for Helping a Blind Dog
Video The Muzzle Is One of Important Tools that Blind Dog Can Substitute for the Eye
This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.32-34. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
Miki Saito CPDT-KA is a dog training and behavior consultant at Mark and Reward dog training and education, in Yokohama, Japan. She is considered an expert in training blind and visually-impaired dogs. Her dog Nono is the first and only blind dog who has passed the D.I.N.G.O. Master Handler test. She shares ideas for helping and training blind dogs on her website Blind Dog Training, and her YouTube channel.